When does a good idea become a moral obligation?
Back in 2012 a motivated WSU student, Sara Strouse, conceived the idea of a competition that would challenge the art and design communities to envision a transformative reuse of the 520 Evergreen Point Floating Bridge pontoons. The competition attracted international attention and was sponsored by some of our region’s top architects, engineers, contractors and educational institutions. The responses were inspiring, thought-provoking, uplifting, intriguing and – most strikingly – for the most part completely doable.
Of the 70+ international entries the vast majority seized the opportunity to create public space where people could reconnect with nature. Most of these also served a critical ecological function such as flood mitigation, water filtration or alternative energy production. No fewer than seven entries specifically proposed creation of urban farmland. Indeed, David Dahl and Nicole Lew’s winning entry envisaged the South Park Food Bridge, reusing the 520 pontoons to reclaim the South Park riverfront as a productive, healing and community-centered landscape.
Image credit: David Dahl & Nicole Lew
We are now blazing through 2014, construction on the 520 bridge continues apace and all these brilliant design ideas are… where? Languishing on a website dated September 2012. All that creativity, all that social conscience, all that desire to improve the lives of those living in our community, the simple, practical reuse of material that embodies more carbon than our city emits in a year – what became of it? We had the opportunity to create an experience so exceptional that we might become known for something other than the Space Needle and the final resting place of Big Bertha. It’s gone precisely nowhere. Why?
Because we don’t talk to each other.
We’re all so focused on meeting one specific set of needs that we fail to realize that a huge number of other people are working to solve equally critical needs that either cause, or are affected by, the ones we’re struggling with.
Imagine if the Washington State Department of Transportation (with their charge of reusing or recycling the old bridge in a sustainable fashion) talked to their upstream neighbor – The Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands Project. This is a project on the Southwest shore of Lake Washington where surplus Parks’ land is being converted for urban agriculture and community outreach and education to serve an underserved neighborhood with great cultural diversity. That park could be twice its planned size if 20 of the soon to be discarded 520 pontoons were relocated there.
Image Source: Seattle Parks & Recreation Dept
That’s just one example of a possible conversation between two seemingly disparate organizations that could go somewhere remarkable.
The biggest potential winner of all is the City of Seattle itself. Imagine inviting a few other organizations with skin in the game to enter a dialogue about the 520 pontoon reuse:
Seattle’s Food Action Plan is particularly focused on the social benefits of increasing affordability of healthy local food for low-income Seattle residents. One of its stated goals is to use the City’s purchasing and contracting power to support healthy, local, sustainably produced food. As well as to promote the location of healthy food access points that can be reached by foot, bike or public transit.
The Seattle Climate Action Plan, adopted in June 2013, focuses on city actions that reduce greenhouse emissions and also support vibrant neighborhoods, economic prosperity, and social equity.
The Urban Forest Stewardship Plan recognizes that trees and open space promote social, economic, and environmental health by capturing and slowing rain; filtering air pollution; providing food and habitat; and contributing to the character and aesthetic beauty of our neighborhoods and business districts.
And what are we doing? Waiting for the RFP to come out? Let’s get this started…
“The City of Seattle invites interested parties to submit qualifications for a project that will mitigate climate change, sustainably dispose of massive construction waste, improve the health and conditions of the City’s most vulnerable residents, generate a clean source of energy, improve food security and provide accessible recreational opportunities for all.”
Brilliant. Wait! Who’s paying for this? We are. Every day, with every dollar wasted on inefficiency, poor planning, paving over the cracks and failing to solve root problems. We just don’t realize the cost of not acting. Let’s break it down right here:
It’ll cost Seattle nearly $8 million dollars to NOT float the pontoons over to its neighbor in Rainier Valley. And that’s without factoring in things like reduced violence due to safer communities and the increase in jobs and income as a result of creating self-sufficiency and food-related business opportunities.
Image Source: Hatch Collaborative
The creativity, the ideas, and yes, the money, are all out there. Our City has real and urgent needs – and they are all interconnected. Is the work we are doing truly solving the problem, or just fixing an attribute of the bigger issue? By definition a “solution” means everyone comes out ahead. Are we solving true need? Is there something more we could be doing? Is your competitor really a competitor or a valuable, overlooked collaborator with the power to expand the scope of the project into something truly meaningful?
So again, we ask, “When does a good idea become moral obligation?”
Are we listening to the people who have the most to lose – or just to those who have the most to gain?
– Author: Jill Jago